Well, college football nation, it actually happened.
It actually, actually happened.
Notre Dame has gone undefeated. Which means the Irish, who have not laid claim to a national title since 1988, are headed back to the national championship game.
On Saturday night in Los Angeles, Brian Kelly's remarkable 2012 team delivered yet another impressive defensive performance, played just well enough on offense to put enough points on the board, and generally proved once more that, while they aren't always the most exciting team to watch, they are a legit team nonetheless.
The critics will (and already have begun to) complain about the supposedly weak schedule this team played. But in my mind, at least, that argument holds no water. Mind you, this Irish team knocked off nine bowl eligible teams (as compared to Alabama's five, and Georgia's four) and, in stark contrast to most every other major contender in this year's title race, did not pad their schedule with ridiculous gimme games against FCS schools or completely overmatched low-level BCS squads. And while it is certainly true that the Irish's schedule this season probably doesn't compare to what the school used to play, back in its heyday, it's still a schedule that required this team to show up every single week. They did precisely that.
The discussion now, of course, will turn to this Notre Dame's chances in the title game, where it is certain to face the winner of the Georgia-Alabama SEC championship clash. Pundits from down South are already predicting an easy SEC win, and I suppose recent history in some way justifies their confidence.
But make no mistake: This Irish team is good. Very good. They are confident, too, and are unlikely to be intimidated by the Dawgs or Tide.
Write them off if you will, SEC.
But beware: They're better than you think.
♦ Speaking of teams that are better than you think, I feel obligated here to mention that, like the Irish, the Ohio State Buckeyes managed to finish their season undefeated as well. Unlike the Irish, of course, the Buckeyes won't get a chance to continue their season in the postseason, as thanks to the those pesky NCAA sanctions, they are barred from playing either in the Big Ten championship game or a bowl game. But the postseason ban doesn't diminish one bit what this team was able to accomplish. Consider for a moment, if you will, that essentially this same exact team went 6-7 last season--and looked mostly horrible in the process. Enter Urban Meyer and, just like that, a very average team turned into a very, very good team. In a year that was always going to present a unique challenge--when you know before you even play a snap that you're not playing for anything at all, finding motivation can be, well, difficult--Meyer once again proved himself to be among the greatest coaches in modern college football history. With each passing week, the Buckeyes got better on offense, and they got much, much better on defense. They also played more like a team--and a highly motivated one at that. Buckeyes fans are most certainly frustrated that this bunch won't get a chance to prove what they're made of during bowl season, but they can at least take solace in the fact that, as this season has made clear, Meyer is still at the very top of the game. Which means that enormous success seems inevitable in the years to come. The bowl ban ends this season. The winning won't.
♦ They were one of the most fascinating stories of the college football year: The 2012 Penn State Nittany Lions. Like the Buckeyes, the Nits entered this season knowing that they weren't playing for championships or bowl games. In a sense, they were playing for much more. This team was a team that many said should have never played this season in the first place, but in the end, the decision was made to let them play; I honestly think that decision was the right one. Football is just football, of course, and I can understand why so many outsiders felt that Penn State made a mistake by continuing with "life as normal" this season, but no matter what you think about the Jerry Sandusky scandal or the events that followed it, there is simply no denying that coach Bill O'Brien and this Lions team conducted themselves with great class this season. Maybe even more impressively, they actually managed to put together a pretty darn good season. Despite the crushing sanctions and despite the departure of a few key players last summer, the Nits on Saturday wrapped up an 8-4 season--better than most everyone predicted--with a 24-21 overtime win over Wisconsin. It was a hard-fought win on an emotional day, as a beloved group of Penn State seniors said good-bye to the football program that, in many ways, they helped save from collapse. If those guys had decided to play elsewhere--and they could have--this program would have been dead in the water. But instead, they stayed. What happens over the next few years is anyone's guess, but at the very least, this Penn State team, and especially the seniors that led them, deserve enormous credit for staying when they could have left, for playing so hard all season long, and for giving Penn Staters something to feel good about after a trying, terrible year.